One of the toughest groups to predict as teams from four different continents look for global dominance. Argentina have world class talent at disposal, Greece are former European champions, South Korea are capable of causing a shock and Nigeria have vast experience at playing at World Cups. This group should be sensational.
The two time winners are back, and eager to avenge recent failures at World Cups. They were put down as favourites in 06, but failed to live up the hype. Now, several players have fulfilled their star-potential and with Lionel Messi showing brilliance on almost a daily basis, surely now is the time to finally answer their critics.
Well, maybe not. Diego Maradona may well be an Argentian deity to the public but after being given the job back in 2008, he has failed to live up to his glorious reputation. The Argentines just about qualified from the South American qualifying group, thanks to Martin Palermo scoring very late on against Peru.
STRENGTHS – Lionel Messi for one. 47 goals in all competitions, the boy wonder has hit the form of his life just at the right time. But for Messi to be truly recognised as a legend, he must emulate his manager’s performances at World Cups. The side can also boast a very strong spine.
The ever-reliable Gabriel Heinze, Martin Demichelis and Walter Samuel have all been impressive this year. Add to that Javier Mascherano as a holding midfielder, and you have a very decent defence.
Obviously, the Argentines can dazzle up front as well. Higuain has potential to be a great front man, and Diego can call upon Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero as replacements up front. The Argentine bench scares me.
WEAKNESSES – Diego Maradona, but we’ll talk about him later. Some players in the side are way past their prime, namely Juan Sebas Veron, who is now 35 and Martin Palermo is 36. Palermo’s goal which cued Diego’s celebrations (see below) may have sent them to South Africa, but he isn’t anywhere near the quality of the other strikers. Veron was sensational at World Cup 98, but he hasn’t been as good since.
There is also some concern over Maradona’s selection. He decided to pick Newcastle’s Fabricio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez ( the latter certain to start). Both are good enough but the decision to leave Esteban Cambiasso and Javier Zanetti behind baffles me. Both have experience at this level in abundance and have played in the Champions League this season. Coloccini and Jonas haven’t.
KEY PLAYER – Lionel Messi
Who else. The best player in the world right now. The fact that he was scored 34 Barca goals in the league underlines his quality. No player since Ronaldo (96/97) has done that. He clinched a domestic title last night as well, so will be wanting to add another winners medal to the already full cabinet. He can change a game within an instant. It could be argued that he is only as good as when Xavi and Iniesta are supplying him, but no one can deny how much of a talent Lionel Messi is.
MANAGER- Diego Maradona
Diego hopes for water park facilities
The Hand of God will have to strike again if Diego wants to lift the World Cup as a manager. This is his competition. He was part of the most controversial moment of World Cup history (the aforementioned Hand of God) and also scored the best World Cup goal in the same game. Management wise, he doesn’t have much experience. At any level. Tactically things could go awry. No matter what happens, he will still be an idol in Argentina come July.
ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 9/1
PREDICTION – Semi finals at best. One man or manager doesn’t make a World Cup winning side. Argentina don’t like having the tag of favourites, which this time, they do not.
It’s been 6 long years since Greece against all odds lifted the European Championship against hosts Portugal. They haven’t qualified for a tournament since and this is their first World Cup since 1994. The Greeks will be hoping for a miracle performance once again, but it’s fair to say that their squad isn’t as good as the 04 one. Don’t expect style but expect a lot of gritty determination
STRENGTHS – The increasingly good performances of Sotirios Kyrgiakos at Liverpool will hopefully be instrumental to Greece keeping other teams out. The side is also full of strong strikers, such as Euro 2004 hero Angelos Charisteas and top-scorer in qualfying, Theofanis Gekas, means that the Greeks can willing muscle their way to victory. Giorgos Karagounis also has the experience to boss the midfield, if needs be. Ten players are from Panathiniakos so the team bond isn’t in question.
WEAKENESSES – No star quality player that other nations possess is a key flaw in this Bolton-like Greek side. The bench doesn’t look very good either, so inspiration from there looks unlikely. Also akin to Bolton, they are an aging nation and it remains to be seen whether the squad can keep up with fitness past the group stage. Celtic’s Georgios Samaras may only be a bit part player in South Africa, but playing in Scotland for a few years shows you that Greece can’t call upon top leagues for their players, and have to rely on their own.
KEY PLAYER – Giorgos Karagounis
The Greek captain will have to do something sensational to lift his team. But this side play well when no one has any expectations of them, which is exactly what happened in 2004. Karagounis is now a veteran of European football having plied his trade at Inter Milan and Benfica before returning to Panathinaikos in 2007. He is the Greek playmaker and will also help his team from set-pieces.
MANAGER – Otto Rehagel
Named ‘Greek of the Year’ (despite being German) in 2004 for the exceptional triumph in Portugal, the 71-year old will be wanting his last moment on the stage to be glory. Also won the Bundesliga in 1998 with Kaiserlautern. His experience tactically could be key for the Greeks getting out of Group B
ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 100/1
PREDICTION – Not enough quality to get out of the group. Will have to play very direct football against the others in the group, to stand a chance.
It wouldn’t be a World Cup without them, this will be their 7th consecutive World Cup. Only problem here is that South Korea have never won a World Cup game abroad. Their run in 2002 was the main highlight of that World Cup as they dumped out Spain and Italy in the knockout stages and finished 4th overall. They were undefeated in qualifying in AFC Group 2, so they clearly have some pedigree too.
STRENGTHS – A decent attack, which is bolstered by some great midfielders behind it. Captain Park Ji-Sung, who has finally become an important member of his club side, will be pivotal to success for the Korea Republic. Pro Evolution Soccer sensational buy, Park Chu-young can often be in blistering form and contributes a lot to the side Lee Chung-young has been a revelation for Bolton this season, and expect him to weigh in with a few goals too.
The fact that the Korean and Japanese leagues are fairly unknown to many outside Asia, makes them an unknown entity, which could also benefit them.
WEAKNESSES – Their defence without question. Only Lee Young-pyo is recognised at having played at a top club level, when he was left-back for Spurs. But he now plays in Saudi Arabia. The defence weren’t troubled much in qualifying but on the big stage, many will have to be in superb form if they are to make it out of the group.
KEY PLAYER – Park Ji-Sung
Park can score in big games
The Manchester United midfielder is an A-list celebrity back in his homeland and the key to South Korea’s form in qualifying. This season, Park has finally shaken off the tag of only being bought to boost shirt sales and put in some genuinely brilliant performances. Notably against AC Milan in the 2nd leg of the Champions League 1st knockout round. His goalscoring record isn’t too bad either. In 86 appearances for Korea, he has amassed 11 goals. This may not seem like a lot, but for someone who sits back often, it’s not too bad at all.
MANAGER – Huh Jung Moo
Now in his third spell as national boss, he has had to emulate the sensational performance of Guus Hiddink in 2002, so fans took a while to get used to his style of football. His use of youth talent has impressed the natives as well. He hasn’t lost a game since he began his tenure in 2007: that run may well end here.
ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 250/1
PREDICTION – Out at the group stage. Could very well lose all 3 games and an early flight home.
The biggest nation in Africa, and also the most powerful of African teams. Renowned for strength and crunching tackles, Nigeria missed out on the 2006 World Cup. Failure at the African Nations this year saw Swede Lars Lagerback take over a lumbering side, who might just shock people in South Africa.
STRENGTHS –Stature. Players like Yakubu, Joseph Yobo and Daniel Shittu are well built and will probably provide a culture shock to Argentina. They are robust and supported by a very defensive midfield including Chelsea’s John-Obi Mikel, who will provide the link up play. Nigeria never have been flashy, but have relied on pure strength and sticking to what they know best, could see them progress far.
If Yakubu brings back some form that he showed back in his early games for Boro, then Nigeria will also have a large frontman capable of finishing. Peter Odemwingie is also key to Nigeria, as the winger will look to terrorise left-backs.
Another plus is the amount of fans that the Nigerians will bring to South Africa. Passion is merely an understatement for Nigerian fans
WEAKNESSES – Strength and speed don’t go hand in hand, and the fact that only the first choice left-back Marseille’s Taye Taiwo can bomb forward on the wings suggest that Nigeria only have one game-plan under Lagerback, keep it direct and down the middle. This could prove to be their downfall if they don’t find goals from somewhere.
KEY PLAYER – John Obi Mikel
Chelsea’s holding midfielder will be looking to protect his defence from onslaughts from bigger nations, and it’s pretty clear that Mikel has improved in this season under Ancelotti. Decent passer and tackler, although often makes stupid fouls. Less of that, and the World Cup should prove to be successful for Mikel.
MANAGER – Lars Lagerback
Swedish manager for 9 years and took them to 5 consecutive tournaments. Failure to qualify for 2010, saw him join the Nigerian set-up. It’s a completely different challenge here for Lagerback, and it certainly won’t be easy, but he can call upon his CV for vital experience in this competition.
ODDS ON LIFTING THE WORLD CUP – 100/1
PREDICTION – Might make the knockout phase, but not much more than that.
I think that Argentina will win the group. The other place is heavily contested but I feel Nigeria look best on paper, and will be helped by their supporters. The Argies will make the semi-finals, Nigeria out straight after the groups
Until next time where I look at England’s prospects, here’s my favourite goal from Japan/South Korea 2002
Enjoy very muchly. Dario Rodriguez, take a bow son.